Monday, March 2, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Saga of Old City

In general, this series of posts has been devoted to books without which Dungeons & Dragons would not have been possible, at least not as conceived by Gary Gygax. Today's entry is a little different, because the converse is true: Saga of Old City would not have been possible without Dungeons & Dragons. First published in 1985, it's another late Gygaxian work and, like many other works penned by the Dungeon Master during this same period, I can't help but see it as intentionally "retro." That is, I've come to think that Gygax was, if not thumbing his nose at the direction of TSR and D&D in the years prior to his return from his California exile, offering a counterpoint to that direction. I have no evidence for this thesis beyond looking at what Gygax wrote and published in the post-Dragonlance era: multiple very old school modules stemming from early adventures of his own Greyhawk campaign and the opening novels of the "Gord the Rogue" series.

Perhaps I'm just seeing a method in the madness where there is none, but, even if I'm wrong, can there be any question that Saga of Old City is a literary atavism? The novel tells the story of the childhood and youth of an orphaned boy named Gord who escapes his cruel foster mother to undertake a life of adventure that begins when the Beggars Guild, of which Gord has become a very talented member, runs afoul of the Thieves Guild, leading to a turf war between the two criminal enterprises. To avoid his demise, Gord flees the City of Greyhawk and wanders the surrounding regions of the Flanaess, becoming involved in a variety of events that hone his skills and pave the way for his eventual triumphant return to the city.

There's no question that, as a novelist, Gygax possessed many deficiencies, particularly when it came to dialog. Nevertheless, the picture he paints of Gord's early life and his youthful adventures is a compelling one -- a pulp fantasy pastiche that answers the question, "What if Oliver Twist had been written by Fritz Leiber?" More importantly, it provides many insights into how one of D&D's creators saw the game. Reading through Saga of Old City, it becomes readily apparent that, for Gygax, fantasy adventures didn't have to be epic to be entertaining and fantasy protagonists didn't have to be pivotal figures in the world to be worthy of our attention. What we get is a picaresque tale that feels like a throwback to earlier fantasy literature than anything that was being written in 1985.

Ironically, as the series continued (particularly after Gary left TSR), the original focus of the books shifted considerably, with Gord becoming ever more significant, not just on Oerth but in the wider multiverse. Again, I detect another thumbing of the nose at the company from which he was ousted, with the later books being Gygax's attempt to sabotage the continued viability of the Greyhawk setting, but there are other possible interpretations. Still, I have a great soft spot for Saga of Old City, for in it we saw Gygax bring his home campaign setting to life in a way he never did in any of his other writings. It's only partially successful as novel, I think, but there can be no question that, as a window into the mind of D&D's co-creator, it's well worth reading.

11 comments:

  1. I think Saga and its successor Artifact of Evil are both fun reads. Post-TSR Sea of Death has some good stuff, but there's a definite decline. Come Endless Darkness wasn't very good, and feels petty in its "Greyhawk is dead! Everyone come to Aerth now!" finale.

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  2. I haven't read Gygax yet, too much on my plate. This book cover is notable because one of my players used this image of Gord as his charcater portrait.

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  3. S'mon pretty much sums up the quality (and apparent motivation) of the series pretty well.

    I loved SoOC. In fact, I read it until the covers fell off (still have my old copy), and it was the principle reason I became interested in Greyhawk as a setting. It has a lot more in common with the short stories of Conan, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, etc. than it does with the BIG EPIC FANTASY QUINTILLOGY that dominated the shelves at the time--and I think that's where its charm lies and why I didn't enjoy Artifact of Evil as much.

    Gary was not cut out to be an epic novelist, but he was pretty good at the old pulp short story--and when you get down to it, SoOC is better thought of as a collection of short stories than a single novel.

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  4. Not to nitpick, but what constitutes 'late' Gygax works? "Infernal Sorceress" was first published in 2008. 1985 would seem to be more 'mid' than late by comparison.


    >>on a side note, word verification for this comment is: coment

    /no lie!

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  5. Jay,

    I mean "late" in reference to his TSR days. I'm thinking of things like Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure, Isle of the Ape, and so forth.

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  6. I will say this for Gygax: He was a much better novelist than Ed Greenwood. Of course, not having a disturbing fixation on kinky sex helps there. :)

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  7. I've always enjoyed the visceral grubbiness of the version of Greyhawk that Gord inhabits. Gary found ways to bring the setting alive that are excellent models for DMs wanting to add just the right amount of detail as spice to their games: the foods in Stoink, the various roadways and byways, the relationships between lords and vassals, etc.

    Good fun stuff!

    Allan.

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  8. For me Greyhawk and the first two novels are inseparable. I had been gaming in Greyhawk since the time of the Folio's first release...patching together those scattered references in different modules and unable to come with a solid image of what the world was like. Then Gary delivers it to me. Boy, was I thrilled and not just by the illustrations of the babes that dotted almost every chapter.

    I was greatly upset by the New Infinities releases, as it seemed like these were therapies in anger management for Gary and only wish he had been given the world that he created...therefore, not to carry all that bitterness into his writing. His profanity was out of place as the whole thing unravelled into: "I don't give a f*ck, anymore."

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  9. I was greatly upset by the New Infinities releases, as it seemed like these were therapies in anger management for Gary and only wish he had been given the world that he created...therefore, not to carry all that bitterness into his writing. His profanity was out of place as the whole thing unravelled into: "I don't give a f*ck, anymore."

    I agree. The later Gord books are very "angry." I felt that then and I feel that even more strongly now. It's a pity, because the earlier books were a lot of fun.

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  10. That is, I've come to think that Gygax was, if not thumbing his nose at the direction of TSR and D&D in the years prior to his return from his California exile, offering a counterpoint to that direction.

    I remember Gary once saying—in one of the Q&A threads—that he intended for the novel to reflect the feel of the game. Which suggests to me that your interpretation is correct.

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  11. I really loved Night Arrant...a collection of nine shorter tales. This is an awesome collection and the stories are very varied in their approach and subject matter...a must have!!

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